From the Episcopal Catechism:
Q. What is the mission of the church?
A. The mission of the church is to restore all people to
unity with God and each other in Christ.
The church really does not have a mission, per se. Now please wait and hear me out. The church does not have a mission, but God does, and it is, “restoring all people to unity with God and one another in Christ.” But that mission is God’s, not ours. The word “church” then should not be the grammatical focus of any sentence that contains the word “mission.” The church in other words does not have a mission to the world. God has a mission to the world and God compels the church to participate in what God is up to in that mission through Jesus Christ. The church in this sense is a “strategy” that God has deployed to accomplish God’s mission.
When we understand mission from this perspective, we remove ourselves from the center of the story and discourage the idea of the church as an end in itself. It was not God’s “goal” to establish the church as a result of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The church is instead God’s “strategy” for the ongoing living out of the mission of God in Jesus. Seeing the church as God’s strategy rather than as God’s goal reorients our focus and helps reorder our understanding of mission.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of understanding the church as God’s goal. When we do this, we tend toward complacency, self-satisfaction and, historically, toward triumphalism. This leads us to a mindset that results in our making sure we have churches in as many places as possible so people can come to us when they are ready. If we act as an end unto ourselves, if we as the church presume to be God’s ultimate end, then we resign ourselves to wait patiently until those outside the church come to their senses, so to speak, and arrive at the doors of our churches. When they do, of course, we will welcome them. But this sort of triumphalism disorders the church and distorts our understanding of the church’s role in God’s mission.
As God’s strategy and not God’s goal, the church should be more “verb” than “noun.” This is more than mere semantics; it’s liberating news. It’s the news that mission is not only about what goes on inside our churches, although our worship and discipleship formation inside our churches matters significantly. But they matter in so far as they compel and constrain us to leave the confines of our churches and incarnate in our communities the good news of God in Christ. We cannot “restore all people to unity with God” if we are hunkered down inside our churches.
This is cold water in our faces during Lent. It has the power to wake us up out of any complacency or triumphalism into which we might have fallen. If we are not participating in God’s mission, then God surely will seek out others to act as the hands and feet and heart of Jesus in the world.